Leaving aside murderers, one-off offenders and the like, there are broadly speaking two types of people who spend a lot of time behind bars: professional criminals, and the type featured here. Ever heard of a Ponzi scheme? Sure you have. It's named after Charles Ponzi (1882-1949). Ponzi was a professional con man who ended up behind bars time and time again. After completing his sentence, he would simply walk out of the prison gate into his next scam. A modern, though lesser known such professional con man is Peter Sainsbury
, who was given a five year sentence in June 2010. This appears to have been only his second conviction, although in the 1970s he found himself on remand in the Lebanon for a considerable time.
The man in the black suit - who is not to be confused with either the psychiatrist of the same name or the famous Sainsbury retailing family - may not have been as big a fish as Ponzi, but the two and many others are a breed apart. How do they do it?
Alas, for the vast majority of people who spend even a short time behind bars, a life after - or with - crime, is an entirely different story. There is an enormous difference between a professional criminal and a recidivist; the former makes a conscious decision, and plays for high stakes. The latter is condemned to a life of crime by biology, environment, bad luck, or simply fate.
And so, after that lengthy introduction, to The Prisoners
The BBC filmed this excellent series over an entire year after being given access to both Pentonville
and Holloway prisons, the latter of which caters for women. The first two episodes are no longer on iplayer, but both are already on YouTube, so if you miss either the current episode or the next and last, check them all out there.
It is said here that half of those released from Britain's gaols reoffend within a year; one of those followed by the cameras is an 18 year old girl (turned 19), who has already done eight stretches. Obviously these must be fairly trivial, but the sentences get longer as the years pass, and many end up doing what has been rightly called
a life sentence on the instalment plan, indeed, she has already reached this point now.
This young woman is obviously severely disturbed, and we see her here attempting suicide.
Many of those who appear in this series have substance abuse issues. This was not always the case, certainly fifty or sixty years ago drug addicts were few and far between, but are drugs the real or only problem?
There are some success stories, like the young guy who on leaving prison stuck out rehab for a mere three weeks but then relocated to the coast after being provided with social housing. In spite of the optimistic outlook of this series though, there are in reality far more failures than successes. One person who was not featured here was Jamie Robery - or perhaps that should be Jamie Robbery. Last month it was reported
that he had been given a 24 week sentence for theft from a motor vehicle. At the age of just 33, he has amassed a rap sheet of a staggering 42 offences. Doesn't look too bright either, does he? What did he steal? A car radio, which would be worth what, precisely?
It is easy to dismiss men like Robery as scum, but like the junkies in this documentary he is trapped in a downward spiral, probably more so. After serving half his sentence he will walk through the prison gates with a discharge grant in his pocket into what? With no income, no home and often only the clothes on his back and his worldly possessions in a thick transparent plastic bag, where is there to go but down?
Earlier this year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced a programme
to attempt to tackle this problem by intensive mentoring of such lost souls. Sadly, it is doomed to failure, because to begin with men like Robery are unemployable in a 21st Century industrial nation, that is they are unable to earn a living wage
, because no employer in his right mind would employ them.
What is needed is a far more radical solution, but it is doubtful if even someone as obviously committed as Grayling or his boss the Eton-educated Call Me Dave will ever be able to see it.
Hopefully if the BBC makes a follow up series to this in a year or two's time, the penny might begin to drop, if not for the Coalition Government then for those in a position to influence social policy ten or fifteen years down the line.